DVD Review: The Night Strangler

Murder in Pioneer Square area

Both this movie and The Night Stalker are on the same DVD. I was originally planning to do both as one review, then cut it into two pieces at the last minute.

After the enormous success of The Night Stalker, a sequel was inevitable. This second movie aired on ABC in 1973, about a year after the first. The plot follows the same general outline as its predecessor: newshound Carl Kolchak investigates the bizarre murders of a number of women and discovers that the killer is a man with supernatural powers, but Carl has trouble getting the truth published due to the efforts of the city’s officials and his own newspaper’s management. But there are several differences that make me prefer this sequel to the original. First, the city where this second series of murders occurs is Seattle instead of Las Vegas, and the story makes use of an interesting historical attraction. And while I like movies about vampires and werewolves, I like it more when the monster is something a little more out of the usual.

In addition, the tone of this sequel is lighter, less cynical and more comical, and the story  sets up tropes that will be part of the television series that eventually followed.

Like The Night Stalker, this movie begins with Carl Kolchak’s pithy narration describing the late-night murder of a young woman who worked as an exotic dancer (not a stripper; she and the other girls who work at place called Omar’s Tent wear outfits like Barbara Eden’s from I Dream of Jeannie) under the stage name of Merissa. As Merissa walks through the darkened streets of the Pioneer Square area, the oldest part of Seattle, a cadaverous-looking man leaps out of the shadows to throttle her. Police will find her with her neck broken and a small amount of blood removed from the base of her skull via a syringe. Even more odd than that, there’s a residue on her throat that the coroner says is dead skin tissue–not her skin, her assailant’s.

Newspaper editor Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) must have left his job in Las Vegas soon after the events in The Night Stalker, since he’s now working for the Seattle Chronicle. He walks into a bar and hears a familiar voice emanating from the back room, talking loudly about vampires. He sends the bartender to go have a peek at the man, and provides the perfect description of Carl Kolchak: “Someone who looks like he just came from a road company performance of The Front Page.”

For it is indeed Carl Kolchak, out of a job since he was ejected from Vegas and still trying to get someone to listen to his story. Tony takes pity on him and offers him a job, pending the approval of the Chronicle‘s stuffy and conservative owner (John Carradine, last seen here as the creepy caretaker at Crowhaven Farm. Carl remarks after they meet, “I wondered what happened to Cotton Mather.”)

Once he’s assigned to report on the murder in Pioneer Square, Carl tries to interview the two other dancers who work at Omar’s Tent. The first, Gladys Weems, who goes by the more apt stage name of Charisma Beauty, isn’t willing or perhaps intellectually able to answer any questions about her dead co-worker. Plus, she’s jealously guarded by Wilma, whom Carl snidely refers to as Charisma’s “husband”. He has more success both professionally and personally with Louise (Jo Ann Pflug, who is so much like Valerie Harper that I used to think that’s who she was), a college student who belly-dances to fund her education.

Seattle UndergroundCarl will spend much time around Omar’s Palace, and while the Strangler will return there for another victim later on, that isn’t what he’s most interested in.

He invites Louise out for a midnight dinner break at a hot-dog stand; Charisma and Wilma join them briefly, and when they notice a group of people heading down the street with a flashlight-wielding guide, it’s the vacant Charisma who surprisingly knows about the underground tours of the remains of the old city beneath the current street level.

After a second, similar murder occurs in the same area and Carl’s attention is drawn to the possibilities of the killer hiding underneath the Pioneer Square streets, he invites Louise to take an afternoon tour of the Seattle Underground with him. This it isn’t so she can tell him more about the first victim. It’s unabashed dating, although Louise will end up aiding Carl with his investigation after a few more bodies pile up.

The Seattle Underground is real, by the way, and you can still take tours of it. I took the tour in 1990 while I was in the city for a job interview, and they asked how many of us had seen The Night Strangler before we went underground.

A lot of people my age and older who didn’t grow up near Seattle probably connect the old underground city with what they saw on this television show. If you take the tour with the ending of The Night Strangler in mind, you’re going to be disappointed with what’s actually there. It doesn’t look like this:

The Seattle Underground does not really look like thisThe first part of the tour does look real enough, with the former street-fronts now basements beneath the sidewalks, lit by spotlights. Then Carl leaves the group and he and Louise veer off the beaten path to explore spaces that are less dank and musty. They find a room containing some shabby furniture, old red velvet curtains, and a half-drunk bottle of booze; these belong to an also half-drunk homeless man (Al Lewis), who lives in the underground and offers the couple a slug from his bottle. Carl offers him 5 dollars for any information he might have about other people lurking under the city.

After seeing the underground, Carl and Louise take in a little more Seattle tourism and have dinner in the rotating restaurant atop the Space Needle.

On their way up in the elevator, Carl tells Louise that all this has happened to him before. He gives her the completely true story of how he lost his last newspaper job because he staked a vampire. The other people in the elevator, eagerly listening in to this  conversation, are horrified, but the true horror in this scene is the red-checked outfit Louise is wearing.

The Horror of the Red-check outfitThe other new friend Carl makes once he begins working on his article is the dweebish Mr. Berry (Wally Cox), a guy employed in the newspaper’s archive who firmly believes in the power of research.

When they first meet, Mr. Berry points out to Carl that the strangest thing about these murders, which no one has mentioned yet, is that they’re very like a series of murders that occurred in 1951. He brings out a big bound book of back issues of The Chronicle for that year so that Carl can read the articles. There were 6 murders altogether during an 18-day period, all young women in the Pioneer Square area, necks broken and a small amount of blood taken with a syringe.

But there’s more. Further research reveals that in 1930, the same thing happened–same number and type of murders in the same area of town, same period of time before the killer disappeared.

Carl and Wally exchange a glance. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? They dig up issues from 1910 and find another series of identical murders.

Even more than the tour of Underground Seattle, this is my favorite part. Like the recurring theme in the Nigel Kneale stories I like best, it’s the idea that the history of the bad thing goes back and back, recurring through long periods of time.

Terrible Murder in Pioneer SquareIn this case, the earliest series of murders Carl and Mr. Berry find occurred in 1889. The newspaper didn’t exist 21 years before that, but Mr. Berry continues his research in other sources.

A witness interrupts the Strangler just as he’s extracting blood from his third victim. The killer escapes, but this woman has seen his face and says it’s like that of a corpse. This tallies with a witness description from one of the earlier series of murders, and Carl gets his newspaper to hire a sketch artist to draw a picture of the Strangler based on what the recent witness saw. This is published on the front page along with information about the same type of murders occurring every 21 years. It’s the kind of article Carl has always dreamed of, and one of the rare ones to see print.

Seattle’s powers-that-be don’t view this any differently than Las Vegas’s did. Carl has run afoul of the city police during this case already with his nosing around and getting underfoot during interviews with witnesses, but this is the last straw for the Chief of Police. He calls it irresponsible journalism and tells Carl that the earlier sets of murders weren’t identical–he counts 8 murders in one case (two were stabbings, unrelated, Carl retorts), questions the veracity of an early witness (a bank president? Carl replies incredulously), and says that another witness described the murderer as “quite handsome” and not a walking corpse at all. Carl has no immediate answer for this last piece of information.

Not that this stops him from carrying on. He knows that there are more deaths to come, and if they don’t act quickly, the Strangler will complete his routine for this cycle in just a few days and disappear again until 1993.

Mr. Berry, meanwhile, has dug up a very old article about a chat Mark Twain had with a  Civil War veteran doctor who claimed that he had discovered the secret to eternal life. A sketch of this doctor, Richard Malcolm, shows him in his army uniform with a notable scar over one eyebrow.

While Mr. Berry locates more information about Dr. Malcolm, Louise takes Carl to meet one of her professors, an elderly lady who teaches anthropology but specializes in all kinds of bizarre and arcane knowledge. Every fictional university has someone like this, though I’ve never met one in real life. Maybe if I’d stayed around academia long enough to get my PhD, I could’ve had that kind of job myself.

When we meet Professor Crabwell, we can see right away that she does indeed have a background in witchcraft that goes back to at least 1939; she’s played by Margaret Hamilton, Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West.

Kolchak asks her if a man over a hundred years old can retain his vitality, and Professor Crabwell responds, “If it were possible, I’d be sitting here an 80-year-old sexpot.”

Margaret HamiltonShe cites some of the things alchemists used to try and extend their lives beyond the human norm, and claims that the legendary Comte de Saint-Germain was said to eat nothing but oatmeal, chicken breast, “and a little wine.” Carl doesn’t think longevity is worth it with that diet. Professor Crabwell then gives him the recipe for a disgusting elixir of life containing “milk or meat, celandine or honey, red wine vinegar, hair, sweat, blood.” Yum.

What kind of blood? Carl wonders.

“Human blood, of course!”

Following Mr. Berry’s information that Dr. Malcolm worked at Seattle’s Mercy Hospital in the 1880s, now the site of the Richards Clinic, Carl heads over to the clinic to see if they have any old records in their cellar–and once he gets into the front lobby, immediately spots an even juicier clue. On the wall is a large portrait of the clinic’s founder, Dr. Malcolm Richards, who looks very much like that sketch of Dr. Richard Malcolm, right down to the scar on his forehead.

Carl gets arrested for drawing a beard and Civil War era Union Army captain’s hat on the portrait to confirm the resemblance. He and Mr. Berry are then able to present their  evidence about the curious relationship between the two doctors to a furious police chief, an exasperated Tony, and a ready-to-fire-Carl Chronicle owner. Dr. Malcolm came from New York to Seattle shortly after the war (there was a similar series of murders in New York in 1868 when Malcolm lived there). He worked at the Mercy Hospital until 1889, when he disappeared soon after that year’s murders, and also the deaths of his wife and two stepchildren in the historical fire–the fire that led to building the new city on top of the old one. Dr. Richards appeared in Seattle in 1910, right after the series of murders in that year, founded his clinic on the same site as the old hospital, and disappeared in 1931 just before that year’s murders when he seemed to be suffering from a strange, degenerative skin ailment.

This is enough to get the police to remove Carl’s handcuffs and let him go, and for the paper to keep him on conditionally, but it doesn’t stop murders 4 and 5 from happening–one of them the unfortunate Charisma.

After both her co-workers are killed, Louise agrees to help Carl draw the murderer out by wandering around the Pioneer Square area in the middle of the night. Lucky for her, she doesn’t get killed herself; the police pick her up just before the Strangler moves in on her, and he instead finds his last victim by breaking into a closed restaurant and attacking a woman who’s staying up late over the receipts and account books.

The police chase the killer, who no longer looks corpse-like, but lose him in the alleyways around the Richards Clinic. Carl gets a bright idea and follows Dr. Malcolm into the underground via the basement of the clinic, leaving Louise above to go and get the police if he doesn’t come back up in half an hour. On his way down into the depths below the city, he stumbles across the body of that homeless man he met on his underground tour.

According to this film, beneath the streets and foundations of modern Seattle are full three- and four-story buildings, abandoned but habitable along a mist-shrouded street with buggies and carts left behind, an elevator that leads down through several open levels, and functioning gas lamps providing more-than-adequate light. It’s fantastic in both senses of the word: wonderfully dreamlike and totally unrealistic.

Carl ventures into one of the houses. Following the sound of an old gramophone playing, he finds the long-dead Malcolm family–mother, son, and daughter–seated around the cobweb-festooned dining-room table and posed in attitudes of attention toward a fourth, empty seat. At this unoccupied place is a plate containing freshly cooked food and a cup of coffee, still hot.

Family dinnerIf Dr. Malcolm’s been living down here for more than 80 years. you’d think he had plenty of time to get rid of all the cobwebs.

Carl realizes that Dr. Malcolm can’t be far away–as a matter of fact, he’s hiding behind the door!

This is the first good look we get at Dr. Malcolm after his face has been restored, and those of us who grew up in the 1970s will immediately identify him as Oscar Goldman from The 6 Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, Richard Anderson.

It looks like Carl Kolchak will become the Strangler’s next victim to keep him from telling anyone about the long-lived doctor’s hidden home here in the underground city. Fortunately for Carl, Dr. Malcolm is easily induced to talk about his work before committing one last murder. After living so very long under these conditions, he’s no longer quite sane and throws chatty little side-comments toward his late wife while he’s answering Carl’s questions. He even takes Carl up in the elevator to his laboratory, where the final dose of the elixir has been completed and is bubbling in a flask over a Bunsen burner.

If I’m disappointed by one thing in this movie, it’s that the doctor then tells Carl exactly how to defeat him. Even for an insane man, it’s incredibly stupid.

Malcolm is just about to take the last dose. HLaboratorye says it has to be drunk at a precise time, just a few minutes away, or else the whole process will fail. He also says that this will give him another 21 years to perfect a permanent serum, but Carl already realizes that it’s only going to give him another 21 years and then six more women will be murdered to give him another 21… and so on.

It has to be stopped now.

Seizing the opportunity, and a handy ashtray, Carl destroys the doctor’s lab set-up, breaks the flask, and sends the elixir all over the floor.

When Dr. Malcolm said that he had to take that final dose at a precise time, he wasn’t kidding; within a minute of the elixir’s destruction, his face starts to decay. He pauses only a moment to ask “Why?” before flinging himself through a window to the street below, and the police burst in in time to see him before he goes.

Carl shows up at work the next morning cheerfully certain that his latest article about the long, long life and ultimate death of the Strangler, Richard Malcolm, will be another front page sensation. And it was published–20 copies before the newspaper’s owner stopped the presses and replaced it with less informative article about the Strangler’s identity remaining unknown.

The powers that be in Seattle are very much like their counterparts in Las Vegas… and the movie concludes with Carl driving away from another city that he’s been asked to leave, talking into a tape recorder and arguing with Tony and Louise, who were also ejected. They are all on their way to New York, but only two of them will show up in Chicago when The Night Stalker series begins.

 

About Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats. As well as being the author of numerous short stories, novellas, and essays, she is the author of "Maiden in Light," "The Wizard's Son," and "Sonnedragon," novels set on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period. All three are part of an intended series of fantasy novels that mostly take place in a dukedom called the Northlands, a part of the Norman Empire that roughly covers the north-eastern U.S.
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